Category: Economics

The Rise and Decline
of the Dartmouth Atlas

flying cadeuciiIn my first comment  in this series (an open letter to President Obama), I criticized Obama for stating in an article  in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the Affordable Care Act is deflationary. I promised him I would post more essays showing how badly he had been misled by three experts who influenced him: Elliott Fisher and his colleagues at the Dartmouth Institute, Atul Gawande, and Peter Orszag.

My second post presented evidence that the research by Fisher et al. on regional variation in Medicare spending has been enormously influential with US policymakers for the last three decades.

In this comment, I demonstrate the gross inaccuracy of the Dartmouth group’s research.

Let me state at the outset: Even if every paper Fisher et al. wrote about regional variation in Medicare spending were true, none of them constituted evidence for the “accountable care organization.” In other words, even if we accept the Dartmouth group’s claim that regional and hospital variation is due primarily to overuse, we would still have no reason to accept the group’s claim that ACOs are the solution to all that overuse.Continue reading…

So, Do Transparency Tools Actually Work?

flying cadeuciiA new report by economist Jon Gabel and his colleagues at NORC, a research center affiliated with the University of Chicago, looked at the use of transparency tools in an employer health plan. The analysis found the use of price transparency tools to be spotty. For instance, 75 percent of households either did not log into the transparency tool or did so only one time in the 18-month period of study. Fifteen percent did so twice; but only 1 percent logged in 6 times or more. The authors concluded:

It could very well be that we are asking too much of a single tool, no matter how well-designed. Consumer information for other goods and services on price and quality are seldom dependent upon information gained mainly, if not solely, through a digital tool. Rather, information on relative value is spread far and wide through advertising and other kinds of promotion using conventional, digital, and social media communication channels.

An earlier Harvard study on transparency tools, published in JAMA, found patients do not tend to use the tools to comparison shop for lower prices (in fact, spending rose slightly). An NBER study concluded that when transparency tools do lower spending, it is because consumers used to tools to identify prices and use the information to decide whether they can afford the service and skip it if they cannot.

The transparency tool in the current study also emailed “Ways to Save” suggestions on how consumers could reduce medical spending. The authors made an important observation:

It is also possible that the message on the “Ways to Save” e-mail turned off many households. While the emails did highlight opportunities to save a specific amount of money, a vast majority of the savings were for the employer and a much smaller amount of savings applied to the employee. It is possible that many employees viewed the transparency initiative as simply a means for the employer to save money.

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The Rest of the Story About the Economic Good News

Legendary radio commentator Paul Harvey ended his daily report with a final story introduced by the tease “Now for the rest of the story.”

Last Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that median household income increased 5.2% in 2015 to $56,516—the first increase in inflation adjusted income since the start of the downturn in 2007.

The Bureau also noted that the U.S. poverty rate decreased to 13.5% in 2015, down from 14.8% in 2014 and those lacking health insurance coverage shrank to 9.1% from a high of almost 16% in 2007. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, that’s the first time all three have improved in 20 years which it attributes to a lower unemployment rate (5.3% vs. 6.2% in 2014) representing an increase of 3.3 million in the workforce. That’s the story, but here’s the rest of the story.

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The Levers We Have at Our Disposal to Reduce Spending on High Cost Claimants


A new report out from the American Health Policy Institute and Leavitt Partners further quantifies what we already know: a handful of employees are responsible for the bulk of employers’ health care spending. The new report documented that among 26 large employers, 1.2 percent of employees are high cost claimants who comprise 31 percent of total health care spending. Interestingly enough, the report was released on the heels of news yet again that high deductible health plans continue to be more popular than ever as a strategy for employers to control costs, with employee cost sharing expected to rise yet again this year.

And yet high deductible health plans may do more to bend the cost trend for healthy employees by reducing spending on items like pharmaceuticals and lab testing but not on inpatient care.

The least heathy employees quickly blow through their deductible, and their health issues are so acute and their bills so large, they don’t shop around for care. So what is a large employer or any purchaser concerned about these high cost claimants to do?

Consumerism in how we typically think of the concept doesn’t seem to be working.  For example, according to McKinsey,most healthcare consumers are not doing their homework – they aren’t researching costs or their choice of providers. And even for the handful that do use price transparency tools, new research shows this doesn’t result in savings. It’s not that patients with serious health conditions don’t want to understand their condition, the latest evidence-based treatment options, who are the best physicians, and treatment costs. It’s just that they need assistance curating and interpreting this complex information.Continue reading…

On the Wondrous U.S. Market For Prescription Drugs

Citing a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, an article in FirecePharma entitled “Some generic drug prices soar despite heavy competition” rises questions on the ability of market forces to reign in drug prices – for example, on the idea that the price of Mylan NV’s EpiPen would not have risen to $614 per 2-pack from about $100 per 2-pack or less in 2007 if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had not prevented Sanofi’s and a new product by Teva to come on market, leaving Mylan NV in full monopolistic control, of this blockbuster market.

According to data assembled by the Los Angeles Times, prices of generic drugs can rise sharply even if multiple manufacturers compete for market share. As an illustration, the article cites the generic drug ursodiol for gall stones, produced by no less than 8 manufacturers. “Several years ago, the wholesale price ran as low as 45 cents a capsule. In May 2014, Lannett Co. ($LCI) bumped its price for ursodiol to $5.10 a capsule, a price hike of more than 1,000%. Rather than keeping their own generic versions of ursodiol low to steal market share, each competitor followed Lannett’s lead and priced their versions the same or close.”

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Defund “Medical Homes”, Fund Primary Care

flying cadeuciiIn the first article in this three-part series I reviewed the findings in CMS’s latest report on one of its “medical home” experiments – the second-year evaluation  of the Multi-Payer Advanced Primary Care (MAPCP) Demonstration.We saw that the “patient-centered medical homes” (PCMHs) in that demo have failed to cut costs or improve quality during the first two years of the demo. We also saw that the sloppy definition of “medical home” put the author of the report, RTI International, in a bind: They did not identify a single feature of PCMHs to treat as an independent variable, and were forced to offer an impressionistic, on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand account of what the PCMHs are doing.

In the second article of this series I examined the report’s explanation for why the PCMHs have so far been unable to outperform non-PCMHs despite receiving substantial subsidies from CMS and other sources that non-PCMHs don’t get. The report seems to say that insufficient subsidies explains the PCMHs’ failure. I noted, however, that the report contains no evidence indicating how much more money PCMHs might need.

At the end of my second article I characterized the problem presented by the report as a conundrum. On the one hand, PCMH staff and many other observers feel PCMHs are severely underfunded, but on the other hand no one can say by how much or which PCMH services need more money.

So what do we do? Do we just pick a number out of thin air and say that’s how much more money PCMHs need, and pour that money down the PCMH black hole along with the other subsidies PCMHs receive now? That appears to be CMS’s position judging from its endorsement of yet another “medical home” program (CPC+ as an “alternative payment model” in its proposed MACRA rule despite the fact that all three of CMS’s “home” demos are failing.

Salvaging what we can

Throwing more money down the PCMH black hole is not a good idea. I recommend that CMS allow PCMHs to focus, and that CMS do so by radically sharpening and cutting down the definition of “PCMH” so that the concept refers to a uniform set of medical and social services provided to a subset of the chronically ill. [1]

Once CMS has clearly defined what services it wants “homes” to provide, it can then determine what the extra services cost and make adequate payment for them. It would help if, in addition to paying adequately for the extra services, CMS would let doctors and patients decide when the extra services should be provided rather than stick its nose into the doctor-patient relationship with pay-for-box-clicking schemes. Paying adequately for additional services and eliminating pay-for-clicks schemes would increase the physician “flexibility” that CMS claims it seeks to promote with PCMHs. Eliminating pay-for-clicks schemes would also lower physician overhead and reduce physician burn-out.

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How Big Is Too Big?

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 8.38.33 AMWith healthcare mergers now announced seemingly every week, I’ve been giving some thought to scale:  How big can/ should health systems be?

Anecdotally, I’m struck that the most impressive healthcare companies in America are super- regional players:  Geissinger, Cleveland Clinic, UPMC, etc.  They seem to get a lot more attention than the national players with hundreds of facilities.

Leaving aside questions like strategy (e.g. is integration of payers/doctors/hospitals the key to these successes), I’ve wondered whether regional systems are simply the right size to thrive.  My suspicion is that even clever organizational structure (a topic which I wrote about last year) can’t overcome barriers that prevent large healthcare companies from innovating and thriving, particularly as companies move to risk and the business of healthcare becomes more complex. Like cellular organisms, large companies can outgrow their life support. (Interestingly, it’s actually the ratio of body volume to surface area [gas exchange, digestion, etc] that served as a constraint to organism size…)

I recently ran across a superb paper-  a doctoral thesis written by Staffan Canback.  Canback (who now leads the Economist Intelligence/ Canback predictive analytics consulting firm in Boston) wrote his thesis, called Limits of Firm Size: An Inquiry into Diseconomies of Scale in 2000, while a student in London. Canback argues, convincingly, that companies do become more efficient with scale, but reach a point where “diseconomies” begin to mitigate performance.  This may seem intuitive: (as Canback notes, if efficiency only improved with scale then we would buy everything from one company that produces everything with great levels of efficiency).  We don’t.

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A Free Market Repudiation of Evidence-Based Medicine

Michel AccadIn a recent article entitled “A Hayekian Defense of Evidence-Based Medicine” Andrew Foy makes a thoughtful attempt to rebut my article on “The Devolution of Evidence-Based Medicine.”  I am grateful for his interest in my work and for the the kind compliment that he extended in his article.  Having also become familiar with his fine writing, I return it with all sincerity.  I am also grateful to the THCB staff for allowing me to respond to Andrew’s article.

Andrew views EBM as a positive development away from the era of anecdotal, and often misleading medical practices:  “Arguing for a return to small data and physician judgment based on personal experience is, in my opinion, the worst thing we could be promoting.”  Andrew’s main concern is that my views may amount to “throwing the baby with the bath water.”

On those counts, I must plead guilty as charged.  I have been trying to sink that baby for a number of years now, attacking it from a variety of angles.  I have made a special plea in favor of small data and I have even questioned the intellectual sanity of EBM.  On the question of the coexistence between EBM and clinical judgment, I have been decidedly intolerant, relegating EBM to second class citizen status.  In other words, I’m an unapologetic EBM-denialist which, as I found out yesterday on Twitter, puts me in the same category as climate change skeptics.

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The ACO Delusion

flying cadeuciiAccountable care organizations (ACO’s) promise to save us.  Dreamed up by Dartmouth’s Eliot Fisher in 2006, and signed into law as a part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) in 2010, we have been sold on the idea that this particular incarnation of the HMO/Managed Care will save the government, save physicians and save patients all at the same time.  I dare say that Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva together would struggle to accomplish those lofty goals.  Regardless of the daunting task in front of them, the brave policy gods who see patients about as often as they see pink unicorns, chose to release the Kraken – I mean the ACO – onto an unsuspecting public based on the assumption that anything was better than letting those big, bad, test ordering, hospital admitting, brand name prescribing  physicians from running amuck.

I realize I am being somewhat harsh towards the creators of the ACO morass.  But, while they all may be well-meaning, hard-working folks that own a Harvard crimson sweater, their intent is to fundamentally change how health care is provided – this mandates a withering evaluation.  As Milton Friedman aptly said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their result.”  Thus, with little regard to intent, and with an eye on the end result, I say unequivocally : ACO’s do not work.Continue reading…

A Spoonful of Inequality Helps the Medicine go Down

The conventional wisdom in the circles I hang out in – pro-Hillary, morally conscious,happy bunnies who pretend to enjoy French wine and opera – is that the greatest scourgeon humanity after the bubonic plague is inequality of wealth. They worship Pope St. John Paul Piketty and canonize Archbishop Paul Krugman. Not only is inequality bad for its own sake, they say, it makes people ill, like medically ill.

Their premise always struck me as specious. I once took them through a thought experiment. Imagine, I said, you time travel to the Bengal famine. There was a lot of equality then – people were equally malnourished. Everyone’s ribs protruded equally because of muscle wasting from marasmus. The loss of protein from kwashiorkor made sure everyone’s belly popped out without prejudice. Starvation because of poverty is a great leveler. It cares little about gender, caste or religion. It is non-judgmental.

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